Climate change and health: Caring for our patients and the Earth

July 2, 2021 Beth Schenk


In this article:

  • Providence leaders are harmonizing clinical and environmental stewardship to become carbon negative by 2030.
  • Caregivers can make a big environmental impact by making a few small changes.

According to the World Health Organization, climate change is the greatest risk to public health in the 21st century. Unfortunately, healthcare is a major part of this threat contributing approximately 8.5% of the nation’s greenhouse gases.

As part of a health care organization, many of us have taken an oath to “do no harm,” yet our daily processes are a big part of the problem. It is our responsibility to find ways to reduce the environmental impact of delivering health services. Beth Schenk, executive director of environmental stewardship, sums it up succinctly: “when we degrade the environment, we are degrading our opportunities for optimal health.” 

Carbon negative challenge  

As Providence works to become carbon negative by 2030, we are looking to environmental stewardship leaders – many of whom are clinicians and other caregivers with a passion for reversing the damage healthcare does to the environment – for ideas that can be replicated throughout our family of organizations. These efforts include switching to lower carbon-intensity anesthetics, reducing use of unneeded supplies and equipment and reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with the use of nitrous oxide. Learn more about harmonizing clinical and environmental stewardship and efforts at the system-wide and regional levels.

Small changes make big environmental impacts

Based on lessons learned, here a few actions that caregivers can take to improve our environmental footprint:

  • Linens ­– Make good choices about the use of linens. According to Dr. Brian Chesebro, anesthesiologist and medical director of environmental stewardship, “laundering a single blanket consumes nearly two and a half gallons of water and emits two thirds of a kilo of carbon dioxide equivalent. So every time a clinician grabs three blankets, when really one would do the trick, we generate a tremendous amount of unnecessary and unintended environmental impacts.”
  • Medical Supplies – Don’t open medical supply packages until you need them. According to Dr. Chesebro, this means “use what you need, don't open what you don't use or what you might not use. This sounds simple, but when individual actions are taken across a hospital system with 50 hospitals and thousands of caregivers, this kind of work adds up to significant impacts pretty quickly.”
  • MSRO – Implement a medical supply recovery program at your ministry. Providence is the only healthcare organization in the country with its own, in-house, non-profit medical supply recovery organization (MSRO). By collecting eligible unused supplies, we can equip those in need with life changing medical supplies while also reducing our landfill waste. Learn more.
  • Nitrous Oxide – Check for nitrous oxide leaks regularly. Ask Anesthesiology, Surgery and facility leaders to check for nitrous oxide leaks and develop a strategy to reduce them.

How caregivers can get involved

Providence offers several options for clinicians and caregivers to become environmental stewardship leaders and start making changes today.

For clinicians:

  • Are you a clinician? Take the CHANT survey from Washington State University to help health care environmental stewardship leaders understand how to better engage and motivate health care professionals to reduce our collective environmental footprint.

For caregivers, patients, and readers:

Learn more about Providence’s commitment to caring for the environment and about our progress.

Find a doctor

Providence caregivers work to improve our planet and can improve your health. You can find a Providence provider in your area by searching in our online provider directory

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Related resources

Video: Environmental Stewardship

Is A Zero-Waste Lifestyle A Plus for Your Health?

Missoula anesthesiologists consider drug change to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Share your efforts to #GoGreen every day with readers @providence.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

Beth Schenk is the executive director of environmental stewardship for Providence, leading a cross-functional commitment to reduce operational pollution while addressing environmental justice and climate resilience in the communities we serve. Beth has been a Providence caregiver for over 30 years. From serving as an ICU nurse at St. Patrick in Missoula to leading nursing research across the Providence organization, Beth has nurtured her passion for environmental care. Her first successful recycling project was over 25 years ago. Since then she has led Montana’s award-winning Green 4 Good program. She co-founded Providence’s first regional environmental stewardship council. She has co-led a system-wide monthly meeting on environmental stewardship since 2008.

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